Editorial: Our city state | News | Palo Alto Online |


Editorial: Our city state

Transportation issues highlight aspirational 'State of the City' speech

Six years ago, when then-Mayor Pat Burt delivered his first 'State of the City' address, he read from prepared remarks about a weak economy and a city government that was cutting budgets, reducing staff and asking for pay and benefit concessions, and he focused on the importance of tending to the city's infrastructure needs.

Wednesday night, a more relaxed and upbeat Burt, clearly enjoying the limelight, spoke only from notes and included photos, videos and even a rap song for an appreciative audience at the new Mitchell Park Community Center, an example of an infrastructure achievement he had expressed hope for in 2010.

Speaking for almost an hour, Burt's remarks rivaled the famously long State of the Union speeches made by former President Bill Clinton, with fewer applause lines.

But his audience of current and past elected officials, city staff and other community leaders gave his less formal and sometimes humorous style and the substance of his remarks a warm reception. Unlike six years earlier, and now facing the end of his council service due to term limits, Burt seemed to relish the chance to hold the stage and share his views with a captive audience, perhaps for the last time.

There were no major new policy initiatives or proposals, but Burt made clear that the resurgence of the economy and ensuing development have come at a big price, in the form of transportation and parking problems, skyrocketing housing prices, uninspired commercial development and threats to small retail businesses.

He attempted to strike a balance, as he does on the council, between controlling or limiting the impacts of development with a desire to see the community adapt to the differing needs and desires of younger people seeking lifestyles that are at odds with many longtime (and aging) residents. He tried to reassure the community that many steps are underway to respond to the worsening traffic congestion, including the temporary cap on development that will remain in effect until a new Comprehensive Plan is adopted.

As mayor, Burt's only power beyond his individual vote comes from his influence over council agendas, management of council meetings and using the visibility of his position to build consensus on controversial issues through persuasion.

His speech clearly signaled his interest in finding ways to get both residents and commuters out of their cars in order to sufficiently ease congestion and allow for the construction of more housing. Ideally, he said, new housing should focus on denser, small-sized units downtown and around California Avenue that would attract millennials who drive less (or not at all) and who won't crowd our schools with new students.

In what was probably his most controversial statement, Burt argued that Palo Alto can plan for population and housing growth and actually reduce the number of car trips and congestion. He challenged the current Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Committee to present a plan that will accomplish that.

Surprisingly absent from Burt's long speech were several important issues that have consumed time and energy by the council and community and on which he has shown plenty of past concern.

While he heralded the diversity in the community, calling Palo Alto "one of the few places in the world with so much diversity," it was in the context of how Silicon Valley had become a magnet for innovators and entrepreneurs. He made no mention of economic diversity, the plight of the families living at the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and other low-income residents, or of the challenges of the un-housed.

Also absent was any discussion of the stresses and challenges facing adolescents in the community, a topic that has attracted national attention in the wake of a series of teen suicides and that most parents would place at the top of their list of worries. Similarly, he made no mention of the future of the Cubberley Community Center site or of the needs of a growing senior population.

Perhaps most noticeably absent from his speech was an acknowledgment of the fissures within the community over the problems resulting from development. Beyond the policy work that Burt believes can correct for these impacts, Palo Alto is deeply divided about what kind of community it wants to be in the future, and this will almost certainly lead to a hard-fought council election this fall.

As mayor and a swing vote on issues that split the so-called residentialist-establishment alliances on the council, Burt is in a unique position seek out the middle ground and quell the fomenting political polarization.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


4 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of University South
on Feb 26, 2016 at 10:38 am

"Beyond the policy work that Burt believes can correct for these impacts, Palo Alto is deeply divided about what kind of community it wants to be in the future, and this will almost certainly lead to a hard-fought council election this fall."

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in 15 years, when the younger generation currently hard-pressed for housing will be the generation with children in schools. (In 2030, the 25-50 demographic will be entirely Millennials.) Will they change their minds about development now that they have had 15 more years to develop income and presumably have bought their own homes? Or will the struggles of their formative years change their perspective on the younger members on their generation?

It will definitely be an interesting dialogue about development then.

Posted by go pat
a resident of Charleston Gardens

on Feb 26, 2016 at 10:46 am

Due to violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are only visible to registered users who are logged in. Use the links at the top of the page to Register or Login.

Like this comment
Posted by Sea Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 26, 2016 at 1:16 pm

Pat is a very dedicated mayor.
I am impressed.
He serves the community well.

Best wishes to Pat and our citizens of our beautiful Palo Alto. It is the heaven on earth.


6 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 27, 2016 at 6:32 am

Once the millennials Burt wants to accommodate have kids, they will need cars, although a large majority of them own cars already anyway. Unless those millennials can guarantee they will always have a job downtown or around California Ave, they will need cars. When are we going to stop this charade of ' If we only build high density housing downtown and around Cal ave we will solve the traffic problems.' We have traffic problems because we are a small town that is overpopulated and a large job center whose roads also serve Stanford. If we create denser housing, we will get denser traffic, period.

I would respect local politician like Burt much more if they came out and said:The pressure from developers, millennials and foreign buyers to move into Palo Alto is just too immense and I don't think we can sustain it.

1 person likes this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 27, 2016 at 8:05 am

New York City has built some micro apartments, 260 sf to 302 sf; they lease for $2,750/month - assuming you need 3 - 4 times the income to qualify, it means an income of about $100,000 - $125,000 per year.

And can you imagine when a person gets married, have kids? Will these same people now demand that different housing be built so that they can live in Palo Alto?

Why aren't these housing advocates demanding that companies pay a salary so that their employees can live in Palo Alto? Isn't that the better solution, than demanding the city rezoning neighborhoods for high density development?

5 people like this
Posted by Be Positive
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 27, 2016 at 8:30 am

Be Positive is a registered user.

The reality of housing in Palo Alto is that we are simply too desirable of a community for additional housing to have any impact on housing prices. We can add to our housing stock, but unless it is designated low-income, affordable housing, it will simply sell to the highest bidder.

7 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 27, 2016 at 11:09 am

The manhattan experiment with building high density micro apartment has failed miserably vis-a-vis keeping them affordable. Each time an occupier moved out, as young people do when they get married and start having kids, their price kept shooting up and is now equal or higher to much larger apartments. It will fail in Palo Alto too if we go that route, because the area is much too desirable. All the ideas of building dense smaller units will create is more density, more traffic congestion, more pressure on the infrastructure and will definitely not solve the problem of housing affordability. No matter how fast we densify, the demand would be infinitesimally higher than the city's ability to satisfy it. It will only drive the price up, especially as foreign investors will undoubtedly jump into the bidding process for those units.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Los Altos's State of Mind opening NYC-inspired pizza shop in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 17 comments | 8,745 views

Wait, wait – we’re working on it
By Diana Diamond | 20 comments | 2,874 views

Flying: How to lower your impact
By Sherry Listgarten | 8 comments | 1,883 views

Premarital and Couples: Here Be Dragons!
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,806 views

Goodbye toy stores
By Cheryl Bac | 12 comments | 1,548 views


Short story writers wanted!

The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 27, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

Contest Details